Adriana Li is a Program Coordinator who has been with IMPACT Boston since July 2017. Adriana has a theater background but her passion for human service work led her on a career path that eventually landed her at IMPACT. She identifies as a survivor of child abuse, as well as abusive/coercive relationships and sexual assaults in adulthood. Along with everything else that has shaped her into the person she is, Adriana brings those experiences with her into this work. Since teaching IMPACT self-defense classes is a primary component of her job, she and I decided to sit down for a conversation about what it’s like to be a survivor teaching self-defense to survivors.

How has doing this work changed your conception of your own identity, aka what has the word survivor come to mean to you and how strongly do you identify with that word?
It actually wasn’t until I found IMPACT that I started using that word. I think the first step is understanding and identifying with the fact that that you survived the things that happened to you. Before IMPACT, I was aware that I went through these things, but the way I internalized my own trauma was to push through. I didn’t feel I should get a redeeming label for my past. When I heard other people use the word I honestly did not have the same feeling of power that I think it can give a lot of people.

IMPACT changed that for me because I realized that being a survivor means owning whatever I want of it, and digging deeper into what that means for me. Being a survivor can mean being in complete control of what you want to identify with—acknowledging what you feel ready to handle and what you don’t; what you want to let go of, what you want to hold onto and everything in between. So my perspective changed when I found IMPACT; I now see the beautiful things that can come from owning your survivorship and coming to terms with it.

What are some challenges you anticipated going into this job? What are some things that have surprised you?
I actually feel like the challenges I’m facing now I didn’t anticipate before I took the job. I took Women’s Basics as a student before I even applied. I came into the class thinking about helping others before I thought about helping myself.

That’s the feeling you had when you took the class?
Yes. And I think that it can be a positive attitude to have but it also doesn’t take into account all the trauma that you may have to hold—it’s not a simple process. I think when I first started working for IMPACT I thought, ‘yeah I’m going to do this, it’s easy’ but then over time I realized how much work goes into it from an emotional standpoint. I think I actually underestimated what it would mean for me to have to carry my trauma in this work.

What surprised me later on is how far it can go; how much of someone else’s journey can show up in a class, and to me it’s a beautiful thing. Another aspect in working with survivors that has surprised me to be honest is how much my own trauma has come up. More experienced IMPACT instructors told me about it, but I was sort of like, ‘yeah okay but I’ll be fine,’ but the way it comes out in the down time between classes… I was not expecting it at all. IMPACT is like truth serum—it makes you see things about yourself that you maybe weren’t willing to look at, or previously had been good at stifling. IMPACT can disarm you in the best of ways, and led me to that path of healing, and not having to sit with settling.

How has being an IMPACT instructor affected you outside of work?
It makes me pay more attention to my own environments and to how I’m feeling in different relationships. It makes me more aware of how I’m interacting with other people and how I affect others. It also helps me better know myself. It helps me understand as a survivor what’s going to work for me in the future, what I’m going to be able to tolerate, what I may or may not be doing to take care of myself and how to effectively deal with whatever comes up.

What do you do for self-care?
I have my little things like my stress ball, chapstick, and other sensory objects, but long-term what I do for self-care is taking things one day at a time. Sometimes for survivors not having a trajectory is really stressful. Not knowing what I’m going to be doing the next day or the day after that or sometimes even weeks in advance can really throw me off. So for self-care I’ll have a calendar to reference but I will treat each day as one day separately and give myself one thing. If I can say I’ve accomplished one thing and remind myself that it means something then that helps me stay grounded in the day-to-day. I also actively practice saying “no” to things. As a survivor the word “no” can be difficult on a number of levels, so when things come up I check in with myself. If my instinctive feeling is “no” then I practice honoring that.